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Women's 'Work' is far from done

Years back there was a mad spate of ‘women’ themed exhibitions. Many of these shows inevitably had ‘women’ in the title and exclusively showed art made by women. More often than not they tied in with Women’s day and month and were government-funded initiatives designed to show how men were doing something to change gender inequalities. Ironically, exhibitions appear to operate as demonstrations of action, though they don’t really lead to any ‘activity’ or action. Oddly, or not so strangely, these ‘women exhibitions’ sometimes turned out to be ‘disempowering’ for women, though the manner in which an exhibition can be ‘empowering’ in relation to a feminist agenda ought to be more thoroughly interrogated.

It was on one such show in 2009, specifically Bongi Bengu’s Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists, that this ‘disempowering’ culture raised its head when the then Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana demanded that Zanele Muholi’s photographs of naked lesbians locked in an embrace be removed from the exhibition. She labelled them pornography. At the time we were understandably more outraged by her bigotry, intolerance and abuse of power than concerned that in a context set up to boost and celebrate female talent, excellence, she had chosen to undermine another woman and therefore the initiative itself – which the DAC had funded.

‘Celebrating’ female talent, which takes other forms like Top Women in business/arts awards, is always tarnished somewhat by a degree of paternalism and exceptionalism in the sense that such initiatives imply that only a handful have the ability to succeed and should be put on pedestal. It is a bit like the ‘Smart-Woman’ phenomenon, where supposedly ‘smart’ women’ are referred to as if they are a rare breed that ought to be given special attention. As such men wishing to appear liberal and evolved forever sing the praises of a ‘smart woman’ – it’s a backhanded compliment – like praising a black person for being ‘articulate’ I am digressing….

Fortunately, female-centered exhibitions - or should I say: shows with reference to the female gender? - are now less simplistically conceived, less paternalistic as they used to be. We are in the midst of another wave of feminism are we not? Now male artists are included in these exhibitions – though in the case of Women’s Work, now showing at Iziko SA National Gallery (Sang), this may be because they are seen to be ‘behaving’ as women – more of that later. In the other exhibition, Our Lady, curated by Kirsty Cockerill at New Church Museum in collaboration with the Sang curators, men, the male position, eclipses that of the female subject and it has to be said, the female artists too.